LONDON — With U.S., British and French forces now fully engaged in attacking Moammar Gadhafi's military in Libya from the air and sea, and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff declaring that a no-fly zone is now in effect, the question becomes: How does this end?
The United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized the attacks defines the goal as a ceasefire that stops Gadhafi from assaulting his people.
President Barack Obama on Thursday added to that by saying that Gadhafi "must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya" — three cities that had at one-time been under rebel control — "and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas."
"Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya," the president added.
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But whether such a ceasefire could leave Gadhafi in power remains an open question. Neither the U.N. nor Obama have said explicitly that Gadhafi must be removed from power, though Obama had called for Gadhafi to step down previously, saying he'd lost all legitimacy to govern.
On Sunday, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy used the same formulation in an interview with the BBC, implying that nothing short of a Gadhafi departure from power was acceptable. "He's lost his legitimacy," she said.
Still, Flournoy was unwilling to state explicitly that Gadhafi had to go for the U.S.-led campaign to end. "It's too early to speculate as to where this ends up," she said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, was similarly reluctant to make any long-term predictions in an interview with ABC News.
Describing the military objective as "limited," he dodged a question about whether the no-fly zone over Libya might remain in place for as long as the U.S. enforced a similar zone over Iraq — 12 years. "Circumstances will drive where this goes," he said.
That troubles some military analysts, who worry that the West's urgent action over the weekend isn't backed by planning for what sort of Libya will be left behind when the aerial campaign stops.
It also troubles leading lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"Before any further military commitments are made, the administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved." House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Sunday.
"I think we're seeing the opening shot of a fairly long campaign," said retired Royal Navy Rear Adm. Chris Parry, a former top planner for Britain's Defense Ministry. Calling Saturday's aerial strikes against Libya as a "something-must-be-done strategy," Parry said he'd seen no "evidence of a long-term strategy."
The U.N. resolution "only takes us so far," he said. "Some thought has got to be given to what comes next."
Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who spent nearly three decades as a senior U.S. intelligence analyst, said on its face, the U.N. resolution offers no formula for ending the West's military obligations. "If the mission is to protect Libyans, this is a mission that inherently has no end," he said, as long as Gadhafi remains in power.
That could certainly happen, Pillar said. "A central fact is the disunity of Libya, which is stitched together from three parts," he said. "It is plausible that (Gadhafi) would hold out in the west even if the eastern part of the country remains" in rebel hands.
The specter of an Iraq-like commitment that lasts years and leaves the West ultimately setting up a post-Gadhafi government hovers over the entire operation. Former British Army commander Gen. Sir Michael Jackson unintentionally made that point during an interview with the BBC Sunday morning.
"The political goal has got to be a stable Iraq," Jackson said in response to a question about how the conflict might end. The interviewer immediately interrupted — "you mean Libya," she said.
"What did I say?" Jackson asked. Told he'd said Iraq, the retired general — who led the British army when the Iraq war began — chuckled. "Forgive me, a Freudian slip."
Jackson, cautioning that he has no inside knowledge on what is being discussed, went on to outline a scenario that included a diplomatic arrangement in which Gadhafi remains in power.
But he also raised the prospect that the U.N.-sanctioned operation could move beyond the current aerial bombardment if airstrikes fail to topple Gadhafi or bring him to some acceptable accommodation with his armed opponents.
Noting that the U.N. resolution that authorized the attacks prohibits a foreign occupation, Jackson said that doesn't mean no ground troops. "'Occupation' is open to interpretation," he said. "Another interpretation you could make is that limited ground operations could take place."
Obama has said no U.S. troops would be used in such an action, but aerial campaigns have had little success in toppling authoritarian leaders. The no-fly zone set up in 1991 over Iraq crippled Saddam Hussein, but it took a U.S. invasion in 2003 to actually push him out.
Robert Gelbard, a former State Department official who was President Bill Clinton's special representative for the Balkans, also raised the prospect that ground troops will be needed if Gadhafi is to be toppled. The no-fly zone, he said, "will be insufficient to change what the Libyan military is trying to do."
To date, the rebels — largely untrained civilians carrying weapons looted from military stores in the east or captured in battle — have been unable to hold territory they took in the days when they optimistically started a march toward Tripoli from their bastions in the east.
Their knowledge of the weapons systems they have is limited: On Saturday, the rebels apparently downed one of their own aircraft over Benghazi. One reporter who has spent weeks in the east recalls a grenade exploding nearby. When she angrily asked the rebels why they'd detonated it, they told her they just wanted to see how it worked.
While Benghazi was back under rebel control Sunday, Gadhafi's forces were besieging Misrata, a city in the west that has been under rebel control for nearly a month, and it was not clear, to outside analysts at least, that the Western aerial campaign could help.
Gadhafi apparently was not using aircraft in the assault and, with his forces inside the city, Western bombing could be risky.
"Gadhafi's forces are inside urban areas and that makes it difficult to conduct operations that don't hurt civilians," Jackson, the former British army chief, noted.
"It didn't seem the air force was responsible for an enormous amount of warfare," Gelbard said. "There was much more artillery and infantry."
There's another worry. Gadhafi vowed Sunday to open up arms depots and provide weapons to a million sympathizers, suggesting the prospect for a long-term civil war. That's a real possibility that Western air strikes could do little to prevent.
While the West often talks as if Gadhafi faces opposition from the whole Libyan population, that overstates the case. Mustafa Geriani, a spokesman for the National Libyan Council, the group that acts as a rebel national government, said Sunday that many of the pro-Gadhafi fighters rebels faced in Benghazi over the weekend are civilian loyalists who'd "popped up when the fighting started."
Geriani also said there'd been no coordination between the rebels and Western forces before Saturday's airstrikes, which began with 20 French aircraft attacking Gadhafi tanks outside Benghazi. Had there been, he said, rebel leaders wouldn't have fled to Tobruk so quickly. Most had returned to Benghazi on Sunday, he said.
As for the future, Geriani said rebel leaders, too, are wondering what comes next, now that the no-fly zone has been imposed.
"Now that Gadhafi cannot use his airplanes, our needs have changed," he said.
(Seibel reported from London, Youssef from Tobruk, Libya, and Gutman from Washington. Steven Thomma contributed to this article from Washington.)
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